Industry Reacts to Ethanol Tanker Explosion

As many people may have heard over the weekend, a tanker carrying 3.5 million gallons of industrial grade (not fuel grade) ethanol sank off of Virginia’s shore on Saturday evening. The Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the ethanol industry, sent out a list of the most current facts concerning the accident.

Washington D.C. – March 2, 2004 [] – The tanker was a Singapore flagged ship, meaning that it could not be U.S. derived ethanol, which would have to travel on Jones Act U.S. flagged vessels. – While in terms of safety and handling there is no difference, the product was industrial grade ethanol, not fuel-grade. Industrial grade ethanol is not as pure and is denatured with something other than natural gas or gasoline. Industrial ethanol is used in everything from cosmetics to cleaning solvents. – As it had to have been imported product, the ethanol was most likely synthetic (not grain based), produced from either coal or petroleum-derived ethylene. Chemical companies routinely import synthetic ethanol from South Africa (coal-derived) or Saudi Arabia (petroleum-derived). There is also some synthetic ethanol produced in Europe. At this time, we do not know exactly where this ethanol was produced. – The ship was traveling from New York to industrial (chemical) ethanol markets in Houston. – While ethanol will burn, it is not explosive. Thus, while we do not yet know the cause of the tragic accident on this ship, we do not believe it is related to the transport of the ethanol. – Ethanol is highly soluble in water and will dissipate extremely quickly, posing little threat to the coastline or marine life. Indeed, the half-life of ethanol in surface water is reported to range from 6.5 to 26 hours. As noted by Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in the Washington Post, “Because of its toxicity and its persistence, the fuel [oil] just won’t dissipate the way ethanol will.”